Blends docudrama, mumblecore and found footage into something fresh–and stirs in a little Kool-Aid.
Though writer-director Ti West is a pioneer in the “mumblegore” horror film subgenre, he has flown relatively under the radar. While some of his work, such as 2009’s The House of the Devil and, to a lesser extent, 2011’s The Innkeepers, found critical acclaim, his 2013 found-footage cult horrorfest, The Sacrament, was largely ignored by critics and audiences alike. Which is unfortunate, because the film is at once great horror and a keen look into the sociology behind a fascinating, gruesome, real event: the Jonestown massacre.
The Sacrament adopts the form of a VICE documentary, which naturally brings events up to the present day. Even with the time shift, the narrative still sticks pretty close to Jonestown, and by presenting the film as an attempted documentary, it allows West to analyze Jim Jones’ proxy, the Father of Eden Parish (Gene Jones) as a figure who is both egomaniacal and intensely secretive. The VICE crew’s entry into the Eden Parish comes as they follow a man in search of his sister, a troubled young woman (Amy Seimetz) drawn into the cult’s close-knit community. West is careful to present most of Eden Parish’s residents, Father included, as actual humans. Though the overacting that often accompanies found footage performances happens here too, most of the interviews and other ethnographic elements seem almost like they could have come from an actual documentary. The implausibility of the camera’s presence is, at times, disconcerting—that ubiquitous found footage question of why the camera joins in on private meetings, midnight thoughts and attempts at both trespassing and escape can definitely be asked here—but it’s not so distracting as to interrupt the suspension of disbelief.
Like most of West’s films, the tension builds slowly but steadily over the course of The Sacrament, but that tension starts at a higher level here because of the intrinsically tense act of infiltrating a cult. It’s clear from the beginning that Eden Parish is a cult, just as it’s clear that Father, despite his charms, is potentially violent. So, the question isn’t whether or not Eden Parish is West’s take on Jonestown, but rather how far will he go with this take?
The answer is pretty damned far. The final act of The Sacrament is absolutely horrifying, but less horror-film-horrifying than human-potential-horrifying. The knowledge that what’s happening onscreen is a representation of something that actually occurred is stomach churning, and West pulls no punches in his depiction. There is never any question that something very wrong will happen at Eden Parish, but perhaps the most startling element is that these, the most shocking scenes of violence in West’s career, don’t veer very far from the truth. This is perhaps why the film didn’t take off with horror audiences; there are no demons or ghosts here, and the maniacs look less like Freddy Krueger and more like the local preacher. It’s vile, but not in a campy way. It is, simply, horror.
Which should be what audiences want. Different looks at horror, different looks at humanity, different looks at evil. The Sacrament isn’t the first fictional take on Jonestown and it won’t be the last, but Ti West still makes it unique within his oeuvre and the genre by blending docudrama, mumblecore and found footage into something fresh, and then stirring in a little Kool-Aid.